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On April 15, 2013, Boston suffered through an act of senseless violence at the hands of two misguided young men. In the subsequent days, the city's residents decided that they wouldn't let fear win, and banded together to bring the perpetrators the justice. Peter Berg's Patriots Days is the emotionally gripping -- if somewhat overcrowded -- story of the Boston bombing and the days that followed the attack. While not perfect, Patriots Day is a relevant true story that continues Peter Berg's hot streak with Mark Wahlberg, respects those who perished during the week of the Boston Marathon bombings, and celebrates everyday heroism.
Most of you likely already know the story of the Boston bombing; it's a recent American tragedy that remains burned into the memories of people around the world. The primary narrative centers on fictional Boston Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) as he works foot patrol at the Boston Marathon finish line. Unbeknownst to him or Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) are lurking in the crowd with two pressure cooker bombs and some seriously bad intentions. Once the bombs go off, the movie kicks into high gear and follows the terrifying manhunt that gripped the city and left 6 dead in the Tsarnaevs' wake.
Right off the bat, Peter Berg deserves credit for the themes he tackles in Patriots Day. The movie doesn't spend too much time delving into the rationale behind these abhorrent acts, and it generally steers clear of any ill-judged blanket political statements, which thematically works to its benefit. This isn't a movie that's terribly concerned with the "why" of the attacks, and it's far more interested in questions like "how?" How did an entire city come together? How were these young men brought to justice? There's a notable attention paid to the finer details, and the movie goes to great lengths to show how various government organizations and civilians worked together to get the job done.
With that in mind, it would be an understatement to refer to Patriots Day as a "heavy" movie. Once the Tsarnaev brothers' bombs go off and we see the carnage, the movie sells the weight and gut wrenching terror that immediately grabbed ahold of Boston. The bloodshed is hard to watch at times, but it's ultimately necessary to reflect the real life horror that occurred. However, amid the sadness and tragedy, the film also makes time for healthy and appropriate doses of humor and excitement. I was actually pleasantly taken aback by how many times this movie caught me off guard with respectful moments of levity. We laugh when these blue-collar heroes crack a joke in the face of danger, and we cheer when they score a victory because that's exactly how they coped in these situations. It's an undeniably human response, and the film nails it.
Not enough praise can be heaped upon the entire cast of the film for portraying everyone involved in the events of the Boston Marathon bombing with respect and poise. The performances feel entirely authentic, and nobody ever tries to steal scenes or overact in any significant fashion - which ties into the sort of no-frills filmmaking that Peter Berg has become known for. Special credit is due to J.K. Simmons as the endlessly charismatic Watertown Police Department Sergeant Jeff Pugliese, as well as Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze for tackling the unenviable task of portraying the Tsarnaev brothers with incredible finesse. The movie does no favors for the legacy of these two bombers, but the performances are top-notch nonetheless.
That being said, this is definitely Mark Wahlberg's movie. He brings a certain dazed intensity to Teddy Saunders that sells the idea of a cop trying to do the right thing and seek justice in the midst of a situation far bigger than himself. There's a specific instance in the middle film when he gets a single, solitary moment with his wife (Michelle Monaghan) in which we finally see the weight of these events on his mind as he breaks down his tough exterior. It's an exhausting performance, but it's also one of the best performances Mark Wahlberg has ever given.
However, despite the strength of the cast, it's definitely worth acknowledging that Peter Berg sometimes has difficulty balancing the sheer size and scope of Patriots Day's story. Even with Mark Wahlberg's Tommy Saunders acting as an amalgam of a variety of different first responders, the film still has a tendency to feel very overcrowded at times, and certain plot threads seemingly disappear for large stretches of the film before returning to have any sort of bearing on the plot. This is by no means a death sentence, as pretty much all of the storylines are engaging in their own right, but it's still a pacing issue that noticeably bogs the film down during its second act.
That's actually something that has become increasingly noticeable within Peter Berg's ever-growing catalogue of true story movies. Lone Survivor unquestionably featured the smallest central ensemble of protagonists, and each character was fleshed out and realized. Deepwater Horizon expanded its scope to encompass an entire oil rig full of men, resulting in slightly more unbalanced characterization. Patriots Day expands even further to encompass an entire city of heroes, villains, and victims, which makes this unbalance become even more pronounced. If Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg want to continue expanding the scale of these true Americans stories, they will inevitably need to address how they approach the size and balance of their core ensembles in order to make it work.
Regardless of such issues, it's hard to ignore how effective Patriots Day is when it comes to making you fear the randomness of these attacks, while also celebrating the heroes who rose to the occasion. Even when Patriots Day struggles to keep all of its plates spinning, Peter Berg approaches the events of the Boston Marathon with a delicate touch and a palpable sense of respect. By focusing on Boston's bravery and perseverance, the film delivers a touchingly optimistic message that perfectly offsets its grisly imagery. Patriots Day might not be easy for you to sit through, but it's a film you need to sit through.